My adventure with Tintin and Snowy

The composer and Hergé devotee Mats Lidstrom has set to music the derring-do of the cartoon detective. Sarah Shannon investigates
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

To the untutored eye, Tintin is little more than a cub reporter with curiously tufted hair and a small white dog. Yet his cartoon tales of derring-do, sweeping from the snowy mountains of Tibet to the land of the Incas, inspire extraordinary levels of devotion. His admirers write fan mail and buy Tintin T-shirts. They visit Tintin websites such as Tintinologist.org, where they can discover the 173 curses of Captain Haddock - for instance, "Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles!" - or examine a full list of Professor Calculus's inventions. They might even go to see The Adventures of Tintin at the theatre.

To the untutored eye, Tintin is little more than a cub reporter with curiously tufted hair and a small white dog. Yet his cartoon tales of derring-do, sweeping from the snowy mountains of Tibet to the land of the Incas, inspire extraordinary levels of devotion. His admirers write fan mail and buy Tintin T-shirts. They visit Tintin websites such as Tintinologist.org, where they can discover the 173 curses of Captain Haddock - for instance, "Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles!" - or examine a full list of Professor Calculus's inventions. They might even go to see The Adventures of Tintin at the theatre.

But Mats Lidstrom, a Swedish cellist and composer, takes his admiration one step further. Lidstrom, who lives in London, adores Tintin. He keeps the entire collection of Hergé's adventures (he prefers not to use the term cartoon, it's too limited) next to his bedside. If you show him a single frame from any of Tintin's many stories he can name which of the comic books it comes from. He's a bona fide Tintin anorak.

Not content with that, Lidstrom has composed Suite Tintin, a beautiful collection of pieces. These give thanks for the pleasure Hergé's books have afforded him over the years in the best way he knows how - through music. "It's payback time," he says simply. "I realised it would be wonderful to do something to expand on the Tintin idea and to bring him into my field."

As a boy in Sweden, he was lent a copy of a Tintin adventure by a friend and that was that. Hooked for life. He devoured all five Swedish translations, then waited impatiently for more of the stories to be published in his language. Later he began to collect Tintin in other languages too. Why? "It's really nice. Did you know that when Snowy barks in Latin he says Bau! Bau!"

He lost touch with Tintin at one point. "I might have put the books in the attic for a while," he whispers guiltily. But when his sons were born, Hergé's stories were soon rediscovered. Now he often dips into his bedside books to seek out a few frames of a story. "I go to my favourite scenes and just focus on them and go 'yummy, yummy'. I don't need to read the rest of it because I know it so well." When he badly strained his hand in 2002 and needed to take a break from performing, Lidstrom leapt at the chance to bring his Tintin idea to fruition.

In May, a CD of Suite Tintin will be released so that devotees can add the Swede's musical homage to their store of paraphernalia. What can they expect? Each piece relates to a different story. In fact, it relates to a few specific frames within that story. Yummy frames, of course.

For example, the first piece is about the Black Island. The cover of the book shows Tintin standing on a boat, facing into the wind as he steers towards a mysterious Scottish isle. Little does he know that a giant gorilla awaits him - which, in Lidstrom's tense and exciting composition, appears in the form of a thundering, discordant piano.

Another of the pieces focuses on a moment in The Calculus Affair. Tintin and Captain Haddock are questioning a scientist about the disappearance of their friend Professor Calculus. But a bottle of wine on the table in front of them makes it impossible for the captain to focus on the interrogation. The slow tango in an irregular metre reflects Haddock's increasingly desperate hints at needing a drink. Lidstrom likened writing the piece to creating "a jigsaw puzzle for the under-fives". He adds: "It must have been drafted within an hour; I remember making a phone call to my mother expressing my surprise."

Not all of the pieces in Suite Tintin were so easy. "'Humoresque', the one the kids like, took a lot of polishing. It's based on The Castafiore Emerald. It's technically rather difficult but fun to watch."

Is he trying to convey the mood and the setting of the story in his music? Or is he more interested in the intricacies of the plot? "I didn't want to write it like film music. It's not frame-by-frame stuff to capture each movement. My aim was to be part of that scene, to capture its mood, and to remember all the years I've read the books."

Like the Tintin adventures, the suite of music is meant to appeal to children and adults. Lidstrom deliberately used lyricism and fun rather than venturing into the more difficult realms of modern music. Other than this, he made no concessions to children in his audience. "It's not necessary to come down to their level and bring a tambourine," he says, "When I go to school concerts I realise that what makes children listen is fine quality. Even if they don't understand, they sense that they want to be there... That's what I felt with Tintin when I first read it. The sheer quality and structure of it all hit me."

The Hergé Foundation is run by the widow of Georges Rémi (the creator of Tintin known by his pseudonym - derived from his initials reversed) and her British husband, Nick Rodwell. Though not classical aficionados, they have embraced Lidstrom's work, attending its first performance at Wigmore Hall last year and lending the image of Tintin for the CD cover. "At first they had to see that I wasn't just capitalising on Tintin, but they saw that I had a genuine love and I was very knowledgeable, so since then I've enjoyed fantastic support," Lidstrom says. Rodwell even gave him an idea for one of his pieces. Bianca Castafiore, the irritating soprano at the centre of The Castafiore Emerald, always sings an aria from Gounod's Faust, which no one wants to hear. "Nick Rodwell suggested I used that aria and that was a turning point in the work," he says.

Lidstrom has no plans for a Harry Potter Suite or a Charlie Brown Concerto. It is clear that Suite Tintin comes from his love of the Hergé adventurer. "People might think it's silly when I speak so passionately about it. Maybe it's only a cartoon to some people, but there is really deep stuff there."

He returns to performing on 20 April with a new cello concerto by Rolf Martinsson. He will perform it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mario Venzago at the BBC Maida Vale Studios. This is part of the From Sweden project, conceived by Lidstrom and the financier Roger Gifford to explore the links between British and Swedish composers and to bring the Scandinavian country's greatest music to Britain's attention.

On 18 May, Lidstrom will launch his CD with a performance of Suite Tintin at the Royal Academy of Music. Like all talented artists, he frets about how his work will be received. "I don't have the ambition for being a composer. I don't follow the trends. I just write because I can... But still, it would be nice to see what the learned ones think. I'm just curious to know what Suite Tintin is worth."

'Suite Tintin', David Josefowitz Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London NW1 (020-7873 7300; www.ram.ac.uk/events) 18 May

Comments